52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Monday, April 30, 2007

who's in my head hiding themselves?

I got a letter from the company that provides my health insurance the other day. It was the kind of letter that made me feel very glad that I continue to fork out the £80-odd a month premium (there's a long story behind this, but you can read that here). The letter was an update telling me that the MRI scans I had 4 weeks ago have been invoiced by the hospital and paid for by my insurance. The cost of these MRI scans? The hour or so I spent in a torpedo tube lying as still as possible whilst they took some snapshots of my brain and spinal cord? £900.

That's a lot of money.

I wouldn't mind, but I haven't even had the bloody results yet.


In other health news, with the wedding now less than 6 weeks away, I can't seem to stop hurting my ring finger. The joint has always been a bit warped ever since I dislocated it about 15 years ago whilst playing rugby. However, in the last few weeks I have managed to give it a couple of significant knocks whilst playing first basketball and then football. The net result is that the joint has swelled up again and it bloody hurts....

And yes, since you ask, we have just been to the jewellers and been fitted for our wedding rings....

If my body is trying to tell me something, I'm ignoring it.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

call me, call me any anytime....

After spending a ridiculous amount of time umming and ahhing about it, I popped into town on Saturday morning to pick up a new mobile phone. I've had a mobile phone contract now for going on ten years, changing the handset every year as my network tries to sweet talk me into another year. I'm sure it never used to be this hard to choose a phone. In the early days, pretty much all a phone did was make phone calls. I don't think I even sent a text message until I'd had my first phone for nearly 12 months. These days it's all bluetooth, cameras, GPRS, 3G and all that kind of jazz. Phones were big in the old days; bloody massive bricks with aerials and stuff like that. Then they got all small. Now they look like they're getting bigger again as they try to cram in all this extra gubbins.

It's all very confusing.

In the end, and after some consultation with this man and this chap, I opted for this little beauty. It's a ripper. A little bit of tinkering this afternoon and I am all set up and connected to my wireless network and thanks to a nifty bit of software provided free by Fring, I am fully signed up with Skype and able to make and receive internet phonecalls. How cool is that?

I've also(inevitably) taken a tentative look at Blogger Mobile and sent out a Twitter update across the web through my phone.

As if I don't spend enough time here as it is.



Friday, April 27, 2007

wear high heels and get a record deal...


Earworms it is then. I still haven't got around to writing any kind of FAQs about this, but as no one ever asks me any questions about it, I'll assume that you all know the drill, right?

This week's guest editor is part of the team that write one of the most interesting and comprehensive music blogs that I've seen on t'internet. Always a good source of interesting new music and fantastic covermounts and features (who could forget November's "Songs to Learn and Sing" feature?)

Ladies and gentleworms... without further ado... it is my great pleasure to introduce for your earworming pleasure.....

Earworms of the Week - Guest Editor #63 - Simon from Sweeping the Nation

Hello. Despite doing something similar to Earworms on my own blog on a weekly basis, I'm taking this opportunity to share with a wider audience an attempt to, well, explain and put in its rightful place why these songs are the way they are in my world. If you're aware of my work you'll no doubt be expecting a slew of far too wordy over-analysis of schmindie from the ages replete with tiny cult band names dropped as if they're as famous as U2 from someone who appears to have no mental capacity for actual pop music as earworm. And you'd be right. It even features two people I know to be Sweeping The Nation readers, for that added cronyist element. Onwards...

10 Battles - Atlas

All together now: "Eefthawuma eefthawuma eenma saanwidg/Runmmma runmmelr eaargr channa/Eefthawuma eefthawuma eefthawuma eefthawuma/Eenma saanwidg, chunmun gingr". Through a vocal pitch corrector that takes it up to chipmunk level, over avant-jazz breaks, pulsing funk bass, krautrock-goes-glam drums and time signatures all over the place. And they have an eight foot high cymbal as part of the kit.

9 The Pipettes - Magician Man

Can't help thinking they're a better band than as a recording artist - clearly they have that extra something, but at the same time they could be doing much more than how they've ended up. This, for example, a B-side to last summer's Radio 2-colonising single Pull Shapes and by all accounts a huge fan favourite, I suspect largely because backing vocals aside it sounds bugger all like a Pipettes song. Lots of spoken bits too, which is always a winner.

8 The Higsons - I Don't Want To Live With Monkeys

This is the early 80s band Charlie Higson had his entertainment coming of age through, agitpop Talking Headsalikes that did next to nothing commercial-wise despite music press interest. Much of their back catalogue is worthy of investigation if brass-powered high energy prophesising is your bag but this one takes the funk, triples the speed and adds a scat section to the start.

7 The Decemberists - The Sporting Life

It's the Lust For Life drums that make this so earworm memorable, I suspect, but it's the words that seal the deal in terms of it being any good. It's partly a reaction to jealousy, I suspect, Colin Meloy being the sort of wryly literate writer I like to pretend I am.

6 Madness - Shut Up

Like, I suspect, a great number of people approaching or around the 30 mark I grew up with Madness, and after writing an appreciation of their back catalogue in light of their frankly poor recent single I've been continually going back to Divine Madness and the albums box set The Lot, because social consciousness never came in such a jaunty package. This edges out Grey Day as my favourite single for so many little individual moments of greatness, from the "one! two! three!" to Mike Barson's divine piano outro.

5 Jeremy Warmsley - Dirty Blue Jeans

The Art Of Fiction is one of those albums that doesn't get the attention it deserves, perhaps because it's technically similar to other leftfield solo artists who get the rub of the publicity green either through being American (Owen 'Final Fantasy' Pallett) or exotic (Patrick Wolf). Compellingly semi-cryptic storytelling over waves of electronica, violin, jazz piano and complete stylistic ADD - I'm aware this isn't a review slot, it's Earworms Of The Week, but I do tend to gush overtly about this record too often.

4 Kenickie - Come Out 2Nite

At The Club made its way back onto my CD player after a Sweeping The Nation piece about the cult British bands of the mid-90s which got a great reaction, which pleases me as it proves that there's a little bit at the back of people's minds that draws us to what you'd never call guilty pleasures but works on pretty much the same level. This is, was and always will be undeniable, from handclap to feedback a tiny margin under two minutes later, the purest distillation of late teendom before real world responsibility kicks in. Oh, Lauren, why are you throwing yourself away on rot like Transmission?

3 Arcade Fire - Black Mirror

Yeah, just me and everybody else in the world. You really can't deny Neon Bible, especially after a few extra plays when it all really starts making sense. Everyone's mentioned Springsteen in connection with the album but it's far less his windswept Cadillac dreaming than sheer bug-eyed intensity, this just edging out No Cars Go in terms of sheer air-punching bombast. And it's good to have a little portentiousness now and again.

2 Lucky Soul - Ain't Never Been Cool

While the last thing UK indiepop needs on the face of it right now is another band referencing Motown/Spector girl groups, Lucky Soul do it right. Very right. Ain't Never Been Cool is a sneaky call to arms for those disenfranchised by the post-Libertines boyrock brigade. The final chorus build-up to a triumphant shouting from metaphorical rooftops of the title might be a candidate for the pop moment of the year.

1 Los Campesinos! - You! Me! Dancing!

And given it's just been announced as their next single this might be pop song of the year, although I've been in love with it since the Cardiff-based septet opened their Myspace account last summer. After a minute's post-rock intro it bursts into technicolour life, brimming with hooks, xylophone-driven melodies, twists, turns, endlessly quotable lyrics and a chorus tailor made for festivals to shout along to. As Gareth Campesinos says right at the end, "we're undeveloped, we're ignorant, we're stupid, but we're happy."


Thanks Simon - now that's the kind of list that I'm talking about (although I'm sure you're being more than a little optimistic if you think you're writing to a wider audience over here. Nice thought though, so thanks for that) . It's all very well coming here every week and being reminded of the theme tune to the Kia Ora adverts ('too orangey for crows') and other similar crap that's been slooshing around my head, but from time to time it's nice to listen to a Guest Editor and to stumble across some music I haven't really heard that much about (Arcade Fire aside, obviously, and I think it would be more or less impossible to know Ben and not to have heard of Los Campesinos).

I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm very much looking forward to listening to the podcast version of this... which should be available here (thanks as always to Erika for this. If you want to know where Earworms #62 went, then she's the person to ask.....)

Have a good weekend y'all.

Next time: someone else (otherwise you'll get me again)

[Previous Guest Editors: Flash, The Urban Fox, Lord Bargain, Retro-Boy, Statue John, Ben, OLS, Ka, Jenni, Aravis, Yoko, Bee, Charlie, Tom, Di, Spin, The Ultimate Olympian, Damo, Mike, RedOne, The NumNum, Leah, Le Moine Perdu, clm, Michael, Hyde, Adem, Alecya, bytheseashore, adamant, Earworms of the Year 2005, Delrico Bandito, Graham, Lithaborn, Phil, Mark II, Stef, Kaptain Kobold, bedshaped, I have ordinary addictions, TheCatGirlSpeaks, Lord B rides again, Tina, Charlie II, Cody Bones, Poll Star, Jenni II, Martin, Del II, The Eye in the Sky, RussL, Lizzy's Hoax, Ben II, Earworms of the Year 2006, Sarah, Flash II, Erika, Hen, Pynchon, Troubled Diva, Graham II, Cat II, Statue John II]

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

well how objective can I be?

Maximo Park @ Nottingham Rock City, 25th April 2007

I was first tipped off about Maximo Park at some point in the spring of 2005 by a colleague of mine who suggested that I go and check them out at Glastonbury. A member of the band was mates with her brother, apparently, and she'd heard from him that they were very good. I made a mental note to go and have a listen, but when it actually came down to it, the new bands tent was an awful long walk through the mud from the Other Stage, and I never quite made it. I bought "A Certain Trigger" pretty soon after my return, and almost immediately I regretted my laziness. Since then, Maximo Park have topped my "must see" band list.

It was unfortunate then that I was away on holiday when they released the tickets for the tour to support the release of their new album, and by the time I returned it was completely sold out. As I often do under these circumstances, I logged onto Ebay to annoy myself at the prices that the touts were selling them on for.... I had just resolved to forget about it and to hope that they played Glastonbury again this year, when for some reason I decided to have another look on Ebay. It was now about 3 weeks before the gig, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were tickets available for as little as £15 including postage and packing. Given that the face value of the ticket (before booking fee and postage) was £13.50, this seemed oddly reasonable. I swallowed my principles and bought a pair of tickets and hoped they were genuine.

They were.

Sarah and I arrived just as the support band were finishing their set. It's perhaps unfair to judge them on the basis of one-and-a-bit songs, but they sounded a bit like a shoutier and less talented version of Carter USM, and on that basis I wasn't sorry to have missed out on the rest of their set. Anyway. Maximo Park arrived onstage at a little after 21:30. Paul Smith apart, they're something of a nondescript looking bunch: they've all got short hair and wear jeans and t-shirts. They don't really look like rock stars at all. Paul Smith, of course, is something different. He's wearing a fancy shirt and jacket, and tonight his rather peculiar brushover hair is hidden underneath a bowler hat. He's a magnetic presence onstage too... partly because the rest of the band don't offer much in the way of onstage movement, but also because Smith is a genuinely mesmeric front man. Such is his intensity that he frequently looks demented as he struts and jumps his way around the stage, pointing and gesturing into the crowd and at the sky. We are eating from the palm of his hand almost from the very beginning.

They're a good band to see live. In some ways they remind me of Bloc Party: their music is slightly spiky, but it is also relentlessly uptempo in a way that makes you want to jump up and down. I think that Maximo Park warmer and more likeable than Bloc Party though - their songs sound more personal and less opaque; where Bloc Party are driven by the staccato drumming of Matt Tong, in Maximo Park, the surge of the bass and guitar are always tempered by the persistent melodic drive of the keyboard. "Our Velocity", the lead single from new album "Our Earthly Pleasures" is played early on and is an absolute triumph. I've always liked the song, but heard live it sounds like far less of a retread of "Apply Some Pressure" and much more of a pumping anthem in its own right. The crowd rightly go wild. The rest of the set is a mixture of old and new material -- all rapturously received with the exception of a b-side that the band clearly adore but which most of the crowd don't know. Smith sagely notes the muted response and I wouldn't be surprised if it was dropped from the setlist before too long. Amidst favourites like "Going Missing", "Graffiti", "Postcard of a Painting" and "The Night I Lost my Head", the new material stands up remarkably well.... in fact, the new material actually in many cases sounds stronger. As well as "Our Velocity", other standouts include "Girls Who Play Guitars", "Books From Boxes" and particularly "Unshockable" (whose riff sounds uncannily like "The Boys Are Back in Town" when played live in a way that it doesn't when heard on record).

It's a good set, but I have two complaints. The first is that they play for too long - about 90 minutes. They could easily shave 15 minutes off that and they wouldn't lose any momentum. Their material is good. They no longer have a need to play b-sides. If they are on the festival circuit this summer, I imagine that their 45 minute festival set will be sensational. The second complaint, and by far my biggest disappointment of the night is their most famous song.... I noticed the other day that "Apply Some Pressure" is apparently now my "most played" song in iTunes. Girl has written about how it is a great song to run to, and I have to agree with her. It's an absolutely fantastic record: it has the most tremendous sense of urgency and it pumps and drives its way straight out of the speakers and into my head (for the record, whilst I think Paul Smith is a fine looking fellow, I'm afraid I don't share any of Girl's ambitions in that direction...). Tonight, what should have been the crescendo of the gig is, for me, something of a letdown. It's not the band make a mess of it, or that the crowd doesn't go absolutely mental when they hear the first chord... it's just that it seems a bit sloppy in comparison to some of the newer material. Tonight, it just doesn't hold a candle to "Our Velocity". It's only a small quibble, but I can't help but feel disappointed.

The verdict? A good set by a good band... and I'm very glad that I was there... but I think they can do better.

7.5 / 10


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

you should have known by now you were on my list....

Last week, I was in charge of the shortlist over at Post of the Week. It's not a very difficult job, and really just involves reading all of the nominated posts in a week and deciding which ones should be added onto the shortlist for judging. It was a good week, and I think the shortlist of seven contained some interesting and varied posts... all of which I was glad to have read. It did make me think though that I really should be nominating more posts each week. I don't nominate enough posts. In fact, I think I've nominated one blog. Once.

I looked at that long list of all those blogs that I link to on the right-hand side of this page. There are a lot of good writers listed in there; people with interesting lives and with lots of interesting things to say. Surely there's a Post of the Week waiting to happen in there somewhere?

And then it hit me: I've been spending so much time writing posts that I haven't really taken enough time or trouble to read some posts.

It's been a long time since I just spent an evening reading instead of writing.

So if you'll excuse me....

Labels: ,

Monday, April 23, 2007

F Scott Fitzgerald: baa bababa baa....

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

And so ends "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Is that the greatest last line in the history of American literature? Well, according to that renowned literary authority, the Director of IT in my office, it is.

Quite how this came up in conversation at all, I'm not entirely sure. He barely talks to me. Given that I consider him to be slippery and insincere, this is not a situation that troubles me greatly. So how did we end up talking about great works of American literature? Well, the truth is that we didn't really talk about American literature at all. He wandered over to me and told me that the last line of "The Great Gatsby" was the finest in American literature. Fact.

Nothing is surer to get my back up than by telling me that something is a fact. I have a Masters degree in history; I know that there is no such thing as a fact. History also taught me that whilst everyone has a valid and unique perspective, if they expect me to share in that opinion, then they're going to need to show their working.

"What's the line?"
He couldn't remember it, so I looked it up on google. I read it out to him.
"Yup. That's it. The finest final line in American literature. Have you read it?"
I admitted that no, I'd never got further than the first page. It's not a long book, so it was on my "pending" pile waiting for a gap in my reading schedule. "Is it good?"
He looked at me and ducked the question. "It's got the best last line in American literature".
He clearly hadn't read it. I looked at the line again.

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Even read out of context it looked like a decent line, albeit one with the faintest whiff of pretension about it. I could easily imagine that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that line and then sat back in his chair with a sigh of self-satisfaction, took a drag on a cigarette and reached for his martini. I thought about the line for a moment. Was it really the greatest final line in American literature?

"What about Steinbeck? "The Grapes of Wrath"? Huck Finn? "Uncle Tom's Cabin"? "The Scarlet Letter"? "Moby Dick"? "A Farewell to Arms"? "The Catcher In The Rye"? Nabakov? Kerouac? Heller? Vonnegut? De Lillo even?"

He looked at me for a moment, blinked and shrugged. "It's "The Great Gatsby"." Then his mobile phone rang and he wandered off, denying me the chance to ask him why.

It's not that I think that "The Great Gatsby" doesn't contain the greatest last line in American literature, it's just that I'm not going to believe it just because someone told me that it did. The only way to know for sure is to read every single work of American literature and make up my own mind.

I'm starting with "The Great Gatsby".

So far so good.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

I came in here for that special offer - a guaranteed personality...

I saw two geeks in the supermarket this afternoon. Well, I suppose they could have been nerds, but I'm not too up on the whole geek/nerd taxonomy thing. Anyway. They were pushing their trolley along in the bread/cereals aisle when I spotted them. I'm not sure why they caught my eye really as they both looked fairly average. Perhaps they were a little short; perhaps their hair was a touch unruly; perhaps their skin was a touch pasty and a bit spotty. None of these things particularly marked them out though. It must have been their voices. Their voices both had that distinctly geeky/nerdy edge to them.

I only caught a fragment of their conversation, but it was enough to confirm my impression:

"....I don't know if she's a medical doctor or a PhD, but she's definitely a real doctor"

"As opposed to a fake doctor?"

"Haha! Yeah, as opposed to a fake doctor. A fake doctor like Dr.Dre!"

"Or Doctor Fox"

"I trust you mean the disc jockey and not Dr. Liam Fox the Shadow Secretary for Defence?"

"Oh no, Dr. Liam Fox the Shadow Secretary for Defence is a real doctor. Dr. Liam Fox is a medical doctor."

"Yes! hahaha!"

Sadly, at this point, our journeys through the supermarket diverged as they pushed on into jams and conserves and I moved around the corner towards the canned goods, smiling to myself.

I'm really not so very different to them.


Friday, April 20, 2007

rock to the rhythm and bop to the beat of the radio....

Well, it looks as though we've not only made it through Thursday, but we've also managed to get all the way to Friday evening and the best possible place to view the weekend..... And so it comes to pass that I can stretch back into my metaphorical hammock (I'm still sitting at my desk at work), reach for my imaginary beer (I have an empty bottle of Volvic in front of me) and present you with this week's Earworms....

This week's Guest Editor is both a bona fide internet phenomenon and one of my oldest friends in the whole wide world. He is a real renaissance man: he's the philanthropist who is single-handedly keeping the iTunes "novelty song" category alive; he's a nifty mover and one of the pioneers of 'minority sport' dancing (his 'weightlifting (both categories)' is legendary at the Zodiac); he's a superstar wedding DJ with several high profile bookings under his belt; he's unable to walk past a statue without striking a pose.....

Ladies and Gentleworms, without further ado, it is my great pleasure to present for your earworming pleasure......

The man! The myth! The legend!

Earworms of the Week - Guest Editor #61 - Statue John from Stand By Your Statue

> The Final Countdown – Europe

Ahem, what a fine start to the list eh? Largely stuck in my head this week as a result of witnessing possibly the finest cover version that I have ever seen. Inspirational stuff. Makes me want to get straight down the Casio keyboard shop.

> Fans – Kings Of Leon

Have to confess that I am hugely obsessed by this band. They rule. Have seen them eight times now and they never fail to disappoint, much like their albums, the third of which came out a couple of weeks ago. As a result of said obsession, ‘Because Of The Times’ has been pretty much on permanent rotation since. It’s a great album. A little different from their previous two, but a real grower, and for me the first utterly fantastic album of the year. Fans is the current fave song, although that’s likely to change by the time you read this ‘cos they’re all brilliant. To be honest, I should probably have ten songs from the album down here as my earworms of the week, but that could possibly be a little dull for the readers eh?

> Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival

More southern rock music here I’m afraid. I’ve been hugely lucky in that I have spent the last two and a half months travelling around Australia, and this track was heard on the road loads. It’s a bit of a classic it has to be said. They do like their classic rock music those Aussies. I gather they (or at least the lead singer John Fogerty) may also be playing at Glasto, the prospect of which I am quietly wetting my pants about.

> Upside Down – Jack Johnson

This was also heard an awful lot over in Oz. They like their surfing music over there as well. We were fortunate enough to head on a tour from Adelaide up to Alice Springs (as chronicled here), and our tour guide obviously adored this song as he put it on as soon as we arrived at Uluru, as well as on many other occasions. It’s a lovely little summer ditty. Me likes.

> Arcade Fire – Black Mirror

Once again I am incredibly lucky to be heading back to Glastonbury this year. A quick look this week at the rumoured bands playing reveals that Arcade Fire are likely to be there. This is the band from the list that I most want to see, and their second album was the first thing I purchased on my return to these shores, and I have sneaked the occasional listen in between the Kings Of Leon. I love this opening track. They remind me of the Pixies a little with an added huge organ sound, which is no bad thing.

> Make It Reggae - Shark Wilson & The Basement Heaters

The sun has been out here in the UK over the last week. Whenever the sun is out I want to listen to horns. Anyways, this week I plonked on DJ Derek’s ‘Sweet Memory Sounds’ compilation, and this track stood out and got stuck in the head. Great band name as well. DJ Derek is one of my favourite DJs in the land – the man is a national institution. Go and see him if you get the chance…

> Brothers On The Slide – Cymande

More horns to be found on this track. My ticket for the Big Chill festival was booked last week, and I am delighted to see this 1970s heavy funk outfit on the line-up. Am hugely looking forward to catching them in the afternoon sun in the beautiful Malvern countryside, alongside the mighty Isaac Hayes.

> Beat Goes On – Buddy Rich

A quality jazz workout, which came up on random on the iPod whilst driving around this week, and was nice. A tune rather befitting of my nickname Scatman John (Scat for short, ahem). Given that I have been given an opportunity here to converse on a hugely popular blog, I would like to point out that this is a nickname I hate, not that it’ll make the blind bit of difference! Have been stuck with it for ten years, and likely to be stuck with the bugger until I pass *sniff*…

[ST's note: I think your nickname refers more to this and to this guy than to this (or anything else like it). God, I hope it does anyway....]

> Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World - Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

Heard on the radio last week. Very cute take on two very well known songs, which I then found out was featured at the end of the excellent Life On Mars TV series. Please don’t tell me what happened mind as I missed it ‘cos I was away. He was a dearly loved and also very big man from Hawaii, by all accounts.

> Blue Danube Waltz – Vienna Symphony Orchestra

I am incredibly honoured to be spinning a few tunes for the upcoming social event of the year – the wedding of Mr and Mrs Swiss – in Vienna, and so have spent the last couple of weeks hunting for suitable Austrian music that could be played at the reception. This beautiful piece of music could well be in with a chance methinks. I’d quite like to play some Kruder & Dorfmeister as well, what with them being Viennese DJing legends, but that may not make it through the strict vetting process that Swiss is likely to adhere to. What I’d really really like to play is a cheesy dance remix of Midge Ure’s ‘Vienna’ but I have yet to track down such a version….can anyone out there help me with this?! The happy couple have actually asked all the people going to select a couple of songs that they’d like to hear, and so I am bound to have a list of great music to play, and a vintage night will definitely be had.


Ah Statue John. You know that you are more than welcome to play Kruder & Dorfmeister at the reception, and I would frankly feel a bit cheated if we got through the night without at least one spin of Midge Ure's classic hit. I'd quite like a bit of Falco too, if I'm honest.... but I know I can rely on you for a few cheesy classics to get everyone dancing.

Well, I asked for a bit of diversity last week, and there's certainly plenty of that here. A good list, my friend, a good list. Should make for an interesting podcast.

Thanks for playing mate. Do I need to add that if anyone reading this happens to pass a statue in the near future, they now have a moral obligation to have their photo taken standing next to it and to send it in to the man himself?

Next Time: Simon from Sweeping The Nation (hopefully)

Don't forget that you can download the podcast version of Earworms of the Week here. This one will be up in a bit.

[Previous Guest Editors: Flash, The Urban Fox, Lord Bargain, Retro-Boy, Statue John, Ben, OLS, Ka, Jenni, Aravis, Yoko, Bee, Charlie, Tom, Di, Spin, The Ultimate Olympian, Damo, Mike, RedOne, The NumNum, Leah, Le Moine Perdu, clm, Michael, Hyde, Adem, Alecya, bytheseashore, adamant, Earworms of the Year 2005, Delrico Bandito, Graham, Lithaborn, Phil, Mark II, Stef, Kaptain Kobold, bedshaped, I have ordinary addictions, TheCatGirlSpeaks, Lord B rides again, Tina, Charlie II, Cody Bones, Poll Star, Jenni II, Martin, Del II, The Eye in the Sky, RussL, Lizzy's Hoax, Ben II, Earworms of the Year 2006, Sarah, Flash II, Erika, Hen, Pynchon, Troubled Diva, Graham II, Cat II]


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thursday I don't care about you...

Last week, someone tried to tell me that Thursday was the best day of the week. I have to admit that I was a touch confused by this and felt that it was something of a controversial choice. For myself, I've always liked that feeling you get on a Friday that the whole weekend is stretching out in front of you.... but perhaps that's too obvious and I was missing out on something? I had to know:

"How do you work that out then?
"Because you are as far away from a Monday as you can be."

I thought about that for a moment. I think that's a fairly negative view of the week. I myself am no great lover of Mondays - the looming presence of Monday is often enough to ruin a perfectly good Sunday evening - but do I hate Mondays enough to make being as far away from them as possible my only criterion for choosing my favourite day of the week? No, that seems to be going too far. It's too simplistic. Is Thursday a better day of the week than Saturday simply because it is further away from Monday? Does the fact that Thursday itself is part of the working week not count against it? Saturday may be closer to Monday, but for most people they at least get to lie around in bed for a bit before pulling on some jeans and perhaps wandering into town for a potter around the shops before coming home for some nice tea and maybe a bottle of wine. I agree that Friday itself is nominally a working day, but it's a comfortable kind of working day when everyone is just that bit more relaxed, perhaps even wearing business casual and bringing in cakes. Long lunches that would be considered unacceptable on a Thursday are pretty much the norm on a Friday.... not to mention the fact that everyone leaves work early and Friday night is the best possible place to view the weekend stretching out before you.

Thursday? Well, it's alright.... but is it really anything special?

And anyway, the whole theory is bollocks. How can it be true in a seven day week?

Monday - Tuesday - Wednesday ->
THURSDAY<- Friday - Saturday - Sunday

Thursday has two clear days on one side from a Monday, and three on the other.

Tuesday - Wednesday - Thursday ->
FRIDAY<- Saturday - Sunday - Monday

Could you not therefore stake a claim for Friday as being equally far away from a Monday?

Or am I over-thinking this?


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

don't know much about a science book...

I was a bit of a geek at school.

Actually, I think my over-developed sense of responsibility probably peaked when I was twelve years old and Head of School. I was a shockingly upright citizen, and thankfully it's all been downhill from there.

When I was clearing out the stuff my mum and dad have been storing for me, I came across a stack of my old school reports. The earliest dates from Christmas 1985. I was 11 years old and had just completed my first term in the sixth form. I was considered a good candidate to sit a scholarship exam in the summer of 1987 and so had been pushed up through the years and was now effectively a year ahead of myself - I was now studying with people who were almost a year older than me and would be leaving that summer, whereas I would be staying on another year.

Not that I'm intellectually vain or anything...

Anyway. Here it is:


Name: SwissToni
Age at beginning of term: 11.6
Average age of form: 12.3

Mathematics Set B
Term's Work Position: 3rd/3
Exam Position: 3rd/3 (paper 1 - 42%, paper 2 - 34%)

I have been delighted with ST's progress this term - not only in terms of improved examination scores but also in terms of his self-confidence. Although many gaps still remain to be filled, there is definite light at the end of the tunnel.

[ST's note: God, but I was shit at Maths]

Term's Work Position: 7=
Exam Position: paper I - 1st/5 (71%), paper II 5/5 (30/50)

ST has not found sixth form work particularly easy and is still finding his feet but he's a naturally hard worker and I feel sure he will come through strongly next term. He wrote an excellent paper I in the examination.

French (Set B)
Term's Work Position: 5/5
Exam Position: 5th/5 (27/50), 5th/5 (51%)

After a somewhat unhurried start to the term, ST began to pick up speed and eventually rounded off his performance in top gear. Now, he is beginning to master his weakness in the subject and he has become more confident in his own abilities to succeed. Let this continue please!

[ST's note - how did I get a French girlfriend again?]

Term's Work Position: 5=
Exam Position: 2/5 (56%)

ST has taken trouble and worked hard for much of the term. He wrote a good essay in the exam.

Term's Work Position: 5=/9
Exam Position: 2/5 (66%)

ST still lacks confidence in himself but he is improving all the time and his exam result shows that he is well on course for next year.

Term's Work Position: 4th/9
Exam Position: 4th=/5 (53%)

ST has made a good effort in the subject this term, doing well to end high up in the form. His slightly disappointing exam performance revealed several areas in which he remains weak.

Term's Work Position: n/a
Exam Position: 1=/5 (80% - What can I say? me and God, we're close)

ST has worked thoughtfully and effectively. He wrote a very good exam.

Term's Work Position: 5/5
Exam Position: 2=/4 (57%)

Although he still thinks that Latin is too difficult, ST has made great advances and has time for even further progress.

Term's Work Position: Set B 5/5
Exam Position: Set B 4/4

Although at the bottom of the sixth form Greek sets, ST has had a much better term and he has produced some good pieces of work. He must not be deterred by his undistinguished exam performance!


ST has found the exhibition projects hard work this term but has successfully completed the course. Art is a subject ST finds rather difficult due primarily to a lack of confidence. However, he should be proud of the work he has completed this term and the new techniques he has mastered. Very well done.

Grade achieved: approaching grade III

ST is a keen student. He has a good ear and his tone is round and firm. He needs to pay some attention to phrasing. He should be ready for Grade III early next year if he sustains his efforts.

Formteacher's Report

ST has worked steadily and conscientiously and is an asset to the form. As he matures he should find himself capable of achieving his ambition.

Housemaster's Report

Behaviour: C
Humour: C
Personal Hygiene: C
Self-Organisation: D

(A=excellent, B=good, C=satisfactory, D=Poor, E=very poor)

Overall contribution to community life: ST has had a happy term
Health report: There have been less complaints than usual from ST this term!
General Comments: ST has had a good term on the whole. He is however somewhat disorganised.

Headmaster's Report

A very encouraging set of reports. ST has come on well and has shown much promise for the future. He has been a member of the school's general knowledge team and has been helpful as a librarian, chorister and lesson reader. He is a keen scout and enjoys judo and table-tennis. A good start to his VI form career.


I suppose this provides an interesting window onto the life of an 11 year old boarding school pupil, but I find reading it a somewhat chastening experience. In my head, I was always a brilliant student. I got that scholarship. I did well in all my public exams. I got a decent degree. I did a masters degree. I'm bloody good at pub quizzes. My intellectual arrogance has clearly swollen in the last 20 years. I know I wasn't very good at subjects like Maths and French and I know I was competing here against people who were older than me.... but it's still quite humbling to read all these people saying that I was doing okay but had a long way to go.

Perhaps I should read them more often.

(It got worse before it got better - by Easter 1986, my Greek teacher was reporting that "ST has made little progress this term and his exam performance was again very poor. I fear that we have reached a psychological stalemate which I can only resolve by taking him off Greek next term. I do so reluctantly!" I remember it and it was a mercy killing. I just couldn't get the hang of a language that had a different alphabet.)

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

it's not enough, just a touch....

Long-time readers (or anyone who has perhaps taken it upon themselves to trawl the archives, poor, strange souls) might remember that I've been thinking about getting my eyes zapped for a while. To cut a long story short, I hummed and hawed about it for a bit, got them checked by Optical Express, told I was "out of range", I then received a letter from them about six months later saying that I was back in range, at which point I decided I didn't fancy it. I lasted about a year before I began to think about it again. It was a year in which I had some hypnotherapy to help me get over my obsession with almost invisible scratches on my lenses. That seemed to do some good, but I continued to be in a state of almost daily anguish about the fit of my specs.

Oh, I was fully aware that most of this was in my head and that there was essentially nothing wrong with my glasses... but that didn't stop if bothering me. It wore me out.

A colleague saw me worrying at my glasses one afternoon and asked me if I had thought about laser correction. He recommended a professor of opthalmology who had treated his wife and told me how the operation had completely changed her life. Hmmm. I was undeniably interested, but it was my eyes we were talking about here. If I was going to even contemplate getting this done, why would I not want to seek the guidance of the best person I could find?

I saw him in January this year. The professor was generally very encouraging, but I would need some detailed checks done on my eyes before he decided if it was an option for me and something that he would be prepared to do for me. I wasn't even sure yet if I wanted it done at all. I wasn't going to get excited until I knew if it was sensible.

I had those tests on Friday.

Today the professor's secretary began to sound me out about an appointment in May.

An appointment for a consultation with the professor? To discuss the results?

No. An appointment for the operation.


Do I not get to talk about what the operation means for my eyes first? To be told what I could expect and what the risks are for someone with my prescription? To think about how long I might need off work? To see if my eyes would have enough time to heal before the wedding in June?

Oh. She's going to ask the professor and get back to me with the answers.

Suddenly it's all a bit real.

Well, actually it's suddenly all a bit sudden.

You know what though? Subject to some reassuring answers*, I think I might just do it too....

*yes, I know that every operation carries a risk.


Monday, April 16, 2007

and so it goes, and so it goes....


In Nottingham:
The Groom - a tall and rather diffident chap.
The Bride - a rather long-suffering beauty.

Other characters:

In Vienna:
Clemens - the father
Susie - the mother
Susie - the daughter (don't ask - her husband was called Clemens too. Imagine how confusing that was at family parties....)
Peter - the boyfriend

Scene: A living room in Nottingham.

The bride and groom are sitting together on the sofa. The bride is just back from Vienna and is showing the groom the plans for their wedding.

The Groom (reading from a piece of paper): "Arrive in Austria Thursday 7th June. Pickup at Vienna airport by Peter". Will he be driving the blue Nissan.

The Bride: I shouldn't think so. He doesn't work for Nissan anymore. Does it matter?

The Groom (who has no idea what car Peter drives or that he used to work for Nissan): Never mind. Oooh, flower arranging on Friday afternoon?

The Bride (defensively): Yes, me and the girls.

The Groom: How exciting! Does this mean I'm expected to do something with the boys?

The Bride: Well, it might be nice.

The Groom: Right. We'll be going to the pub then....

The Bride: Oh, there's something else I need to tell you.

The Groom (warily): yyyyeeeeesss?

The Bride: Yes. Susie (younger) had a word with me. Apparently Clemens would very much like to give a speech.

The Groom (decisively): We said no speeches....

The Bride: Yes, and Clemens knows that, so he asked Susie to ask me because he doesn't want me to feel as though I can't say no.

The Groom: ... we agreed we were going to keep things simple....

The Bride: Obviously, I feel as though we can't really say no.

The Groom: Right.

The Bride: ....and my dad would very much like to give a speech too.

The Groom: Right.

The Bride: ...and I didn't really feel like I could say no....

The Groom: I see. I suppose not.

The Bride: The thing is....

The Groom: Yes?

The Bride: Well.... if Clemens and my dad both give speeches...

The Groom: Yes?

The Bride: Well, it will be a bit lopsided. All speeches from my side of the family....

The Groom (coldly): I see

The Bride: I was wondering if you could ask your best man...

The Groom: I don't have a best man. We agreed to keep it simple. I've got a witness....

The Bride: Ok. Your witness.

The Groom
: I told my witness that he wouldn't have to give a speech. He's in New Zealand until June. I don't think it's fair to ask him to give a speech.

The Bride: OK. But the evening might seem a bit lop-sided...

The Groom: We said no speeches!

The Bride: And I thought we should also have two ushers. One English speaker, one German speaker. I thought perhaps you could ask your brother...

The Groom: ........ !



The only thing that matters to me is the marriage itself. The rest is just detail.


Friday, April 13, 2007

We don’t care about the young folks…

Evening. The weekend is here and to celebrate this glorious weather, I am about to take myself off to the gym for a swim in the indoor pool. Hurray! (Look, it makes sense to me, alright? My 2 week embargo on wearing my contact lenses ended this afternoon and I plan to celebrate in style. Well, I plan to go for a swim, anyways)

One last task to carry out though.... Earworms, of course.

You surely know the drill by now - blah blah blah....tunes that have floated unbidden across my brain / a Guest Editor's brain in the space of the last seven days....blah blah blah. Everyone knows this already, right? Can I take that as read, or do I maybe need to write some Earworm FAQs and have some sort of permalink thingie? Is that the sort of thing that bloggers do? I'm never quite sure....

Actually, now I think of it, perhaps I shouldn't be mentioning drills at all. This week's Guest Editor has spent rather a lot of time in the dentist's chair over the last few weeks, and I think it's probably something that she doesn't care to be reminded of too often.

Is it secret?

Is it safe?

Anyways. Get to the Earworms man. No one's interested in your blathering.

SO..... without further ado, it is my great pleasure to present for your Earworming pleasure....

Earworms of the Week - Guest Editor #60 - Cat from TheCatGirlSpeaks

10) The Sweet Escape – Gwen Stefani

I’m not much of a fan of Gwen Stefani’s solo stuff, although I did quite like No Doubt, back in the day. This, however, is an exceptionally catchy little number, despite the fact it sounds like she’s singing about rainwear - “The sweetest cape.”

Clearly, I am listening to too much Radio One at the moment.

9) Superstar Tradesman – The View

I saw The View live earlier this week – you can see the review here - and this track was pretty damn perfect. The support band was quite a different matter, but that’s a story for another day.

8) Cat’s in the Cradle – Ugly Kid Joe

Remember this? I heard it on the radio on the bank holiday Monday where there was some sort of guess the year thing going on. What a ridiculous song. Naturally, despite not having heard it in absolutely ages, I knew every single word.

Oh, and the year? I missed that part, so if you can tell me, I’ll be delighted.

7) Brianstorm - The Arctic Monkeys

I feel certain I should like The Arctic Monkeys, and I don’t doubt the fact that lyrically, they are very clever. But I don’t. Catchy though.

6) Up the Junction – Squeeze

Back to that View gig, I’m afraid. This was the sole cover of the evening and it’s been rattling around my brain ever since.

5) A Life Less Ordinary – Ash

Does anyone know what happened to Ash? Have I just lost the thread along the way? Anyway. I watched the film of the same name on Sunday night and haven’t been able to get this song out of my head since. Actually, forget the song – how hot was Ewan McGregor in this, despite his dodgy haircut?

4) Country Mile – Camera Obscura

Currently being used on the Florence and Fred for Tesco ad, fact fans.

3) (I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles – The Proclaimers

I should stress that I’m a bit of a purist here, so this is the original version, not the Comic Relief one. Although I’m certain The Proclaimers are laughing all the way to the bank with that. Or they would be if it wasn’t for charidee. This track reminds me of the end of every wedding I’ve ever been to. Reminiscent of braying along while trying to stop drunken “uncle” Sid from putting his hand on your arse.

2) Yellow – Coldplay

This track will now be forever linked in my head with pain, playing as it was while I was at the dentist’s mercy yesterday.

Frankly, it’s a good job I was never a Coldplay fan.

1) Young Folks – Peter, Bjorn and John

Seldom has a track been used as a background on television quite as much as this one. (Except, of course, every single record from Moby’s Play album.) It crops up absolutely everywhere from adverts to sports programmes, and that whistle-y bit’s just made to be an earworm. That aside, I absolutely love this, and if you’re looking for a new CD to buy, I’d thoroughly recommend this little lot.


Thanks Cat. There's sadly nothing *really* disgraceful in there, is there? (no Coldplay jokes please. Do at least try to remember that I like Coldplay. Thanks). Is it really only me who gets plagued by utterly unspeakable earworms ALL THE TIME. I reckon that the podcasts would be greatly enhanced by the theme tune from the Um Bongo adverts or "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins. Perhaps even a comedy bit of Mariah Carey (which I was lucky enough to be earworming only this morning - and it was a really full on warbly one too).

Perhaps that's just me?

Podcasts are available here, and I'm sure this one will be up before long.

OK. pooltime!

Next time: Statue John

[Previous Guest Editors: Flash, The Urban Fox, Lord Bargain, Retro-Boy, Statue John, Ben, OLS, Ka, Jenni, Aravis, Yoko, Bee, Charlie, Tom, Di, Spin, The Ultimate Olympian, Damo, Mike, RedOne, The NumNum, Leah, Le Moine Perdu, clm, Michael, Hyde, Adem, Alecya, bytheseashore, adamant, Earworms of the Year 2005, Delrico Bandito, Graham, Lithaborn, Phil, Mark II, Stef, Kaptain Kobold, bedshaped, I have ordinary addictions, TheCatGirlSpeaks, Lord B rides again, Tina, Charlie II, Cody Bones, Poll Star, Jenni II, Martin, Del II, The Eye in the Sky, RussL, Lizzy's Hoax, Ben II, Earworms of the Year 2006, Sarah, Flash II, Erika, Hen, Pynchon, Troubled Diva, Graham II]

Labels: ,

how many lies have you told today into the dark of your coffee cup?

Tina Dico @ Nottingham Social, 12 April 2007

Dearie me. I'm sure I'm getting too old for this. A gig on a school night is one thing, but at some point in the evening, it became one of those nights where one pint becomes two becomes six....I think I finally got into bed at about 2am, having inexplicably spent half an hour pottering away on my laptop after Sarah had kindly dropped me home. Hmm. Mind you, Je regrette rien. It was a lovely night. As well as the gig and the delicious plate of fish and chips at the Cock & Hoop (that we forgot to pay for), I finally got to meet Mike... and who could ask for more than that?

I bought the tickets to this gig entirely on a whim. I do actually have a song on my iPod by Tina Dico, but I downloaded it as part of Sweeping the Nation's "Songs to Learn and Sing" feature back in November last year and I'm not 100% sure that I've actually listened to it. Nottingham has a good range of venues and attracts a decent variety of bands, but I tend to miss lots of them because by the time I spot that someone interesting is playing, tickets have long since sold out. Periodically I vow that this won't happen to me again. In the wake of missing out on tickets to see Maximo Park and the Manic Street Preachers, I popped into Rock City to pick up a flyer to see who was on in the next few months. There weren't any real "must see" acts on the lists that weren't already sold out, but as I always say that a half-decent gig is a lot better than a night in front of bad telly, I picked out a couple of shows that sounded interesting.... and ended up with 4 tickets to see Tina Dico at the Social. Well, they cost me less than a tenner each and she had been specially picked out by someone called 'Dead Kenny' on Sweeping the Nation as being an act worthy of a listen, so why not? Ever since then, I've seen her name glaring at me from the kitchen calendar and idly wondered what I letting myself in for - particularly once I had read the wikipedia entry that described her as "a cross between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan" (what a dreadful thought. Just imagine for a moment what that would look like....) *

For one reason or another, I ended up with a couple of spare tickets. Rather than let them go to waste, I cast my mind about to think of people in Nottingham who might be around and would consider turning up to a random gig at short notice. Naturally I thought of Mike, and happily he was able to attend (after sending me possibly the best voice message I have ever had. "Hi. It's Mike here. Mike from Troubled Diva. I'm interviewing Maria McKee at eight, but I'll see you after that. I'll hang around in the downstairs bar at the Social". Oh, the glamour!) Anyway, it was high time we met and he's absolutely lovely.

So. Tina Dico.

I suppose it's unfortunate that she looks so much like Lisa Kudrow. Mike immediately has Sarah and me in hysterics early on when she asks the audience if they have any requests and he stage-whispers "Smelly Cat!". It's also a touch unfortunate that she plays an incredibly straight-faced cover version of "In The Army Now" by Status Quo. Yes, I can see what she's doing there when she says that this song is sadly as relevant now as it was when it was originally released, but she seems genuinely a little surprised at the sniggers from the audience. Have Status Quo ever been relevant? Where do you go from that? Into a song originally released by Holly Valance? To be fair to Ms Dico, she actually wrote the song in question ("Send My Best"), but she seemed genuinely interested to know how many people in the audience had Holly's album, causing a fair bit of awkward foot shuffling and coughing as people tried to avoid her gaze (possibly as much from anyone present who actually had the album as from those of us who didn't). Rather distractingly, her keyboard player is also the spitting image of Julianne Moore. At this point, all three of us were busy clutching our phones, frantically sending updates to Twitter. O Tempora! O Mores!

These minor distractions aside though, I thought she was pretty good. Inevitably for a female singer/songwriter, there's a touch of Joni Mitchell in there, but at other times she also reminded me of Sufjan Stevens (one of her songs was a dead ringer for "John Wayne Gacy Jr" off Illinoise) and also that woman from the film version of "High Fidelity" (you know, the singer/songwriter that John Cusack's character has a thing for). Echoing a remark made in another Nick Hornby book, she's one of those people who sings with her eyes shut, but her material seems heartfelt and is occasionally quite touching. I initially worried that she would lapse into bad sixth form poetry -- especially as English isn't her first language --but on the whole I thought that her lyrics were good (her song about the one night stand in particular was both stark, unflinching and beautifully delivered).

The Social is only a small venue and I think it was perhaps a little over half full, the audience appearing to be mainly made up of politely respectful middle-aged guys (perhaps it's time I started including myself in that category....?). The set lasted a touch over an hour and Tina certainly didn't outstay her welcome. I enjoyed the set and I think she's one to investigate further. I also think Lord Bargain would love her.

After the gig, the three of us retired to the downstairs bar where we had another couple of drinks. I'll admit to feeling a touch groggy when I woke up this morning, but I think I've got a bit of a cold coming on..... anyway, it was well worth it.

A good night.


* Actually, wikipedia only says that she was inspired by Dylan and Cohen, but it's too late now - I'm stuck with a mental image of that unfortunate cross-breed....

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 12, 2007

if only I'd seen that the joke was on me....

She won't thank me for telling you this, but I made C. laugh so much yesterday evening that she had to run upstairs to change her trousers. The cause of this gut-wrenching hilarity? I could make the cup of tea I had just drunk audibly slosh around in my stomach as I was sat on the sofa and apparently not moving a muscle....

I really am a comic genius.

Given that I can also make my eyes squeak by rubbing them, I'm beginning to think of a career change.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

jungle boogie....

Ecuador Trip - part eight.

[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]

...in which our heroes head into the jungle, the mighty jungle....

Monday 19th March

An early start to catch a flight to Coca. It's only a short hop of about 25 minutes over the mountains by plane, but it's a journey that takes a full ten hours by car. Coca is a small town on the eastern side of Ecuador, and it's here that we are going to make the journey down the Napo river and into the Amazon jungle. Quito is 2800m above sea-level and is the second highest capital city in the world (after La Paz). Coca is almost at sea level, and you can feel the difference in temperature and humidity as soon as you step off the plane. We're practically on the equator here, and it is hot. We are met at the airport, and after a bit of hanging around at a local hotel we are soon boarding a motorised canoe and starting our 5 hour journey down the Napo to our lodge. It's a very atmospheric journey.

The Napo river - big

The Napo is a huge river (although it has hundreds of miles still to travel before it joins the Amazon river) and the jungle presses up tightly against the river banks. We also discover how the rainforest gets its name, as we pass through squalls of varying intensity. Finally we turn off the main river and dive down a much smaller stream to reach Yuturi, our lodge.

Yuturi Lodge

It is set in 500 hectares of lagoon, and it is a lovely spot. Home for the next three nights is to be a little cabin with a palm leaf roof and a small and rather smelly bed covered with a mosquito net. It's certainly not five star, but I'm not here for the comfort. We rest up for the next few hours in the hammocks and watch the rain come pouring down. It's very, very different to the mountains.

home sweet home

Apart from one other couple (Fernando from Ecuador and Maria from Hungary, who met in London on an English language course), we are the only people here. We have a nice meal in the lodge, a few hands of Cuarenta and then hit the sack early as the generator is turned off at 21:00. C. is slightly freaked out by the size of the cockroach sitting on the wall of our hut, but I reassure her that it is surely the only one in the whole jungle and we've just been unlucky. I drift off to sleep listening to the incredible noises coming out of the jungle, which seems to only just be coming to life....

Tuesday 20th March

We make an early star, waking to the sound of howler monkeys somewhere out in the jungle. We head out into the lagoon in the smaller canoes to do a bit of birdwatching. We see lots.

A typical view across the lagoon from a canoe

I know I said I wasn't going to make a list, but you're just going to have to humour me again:

Hoatzin, White Banded Flycatcher, Plumbeous Pigeon, Striated Heron, Greater Ani, Fulvous Shrike Tanager, Nightjar, Cobalt Winger Parakeet, Banded Kingfisher, Great Tinamou, Small Billed Ani, White Hawk, Orange Winged Amazon, Mealy Amazon, Pauraque, Chesnut Headed Crake, Many Banded Aracari, Cocoi Heron, Anhinga, Lesser Jay, Amazon Kingfisher, Blue Crowned Trogone, Yellow Rumped Cacique, Violaceous Jay, Ruddy Pigeon, Less Kiskadee, Masked Crimson Tanager, Neotropic Cormorant, Osprey, Crested Oropendola, Black Continga, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Yellow Dusted Woodpecker....

I'm sure I've missed some. It's a pretty splendid place for looking at birds.

My favourite: The Many Banded Aracari

We return to the lodge for breakfast, but we're soon back in the canoes and off for a 3 hour walk through the jungle. It's not terribly heavy-going, to be honest, but the storm last night has meant that there is plenty of water to be waded through / crossed on fallen trees, so it's never dull. We also see an enormous variety of insects, mainly ants of varying sizes from the tiny lemon ant (which I taste, and yes, they are lemony) to the massive Conga ant that you really don't want to mess with. Perhaps in retribution for eating some ants, the worst bite I get in the whole week here comes from an ant that works its way underneath my shirt and takes a couple of chunks out of my arm.

A big tree, a machete and some sweaty tourists...

Back at the lodge I get dragged into another game of football with the natives - this time it's three-a-side and I'm wearing my walking boots, so it's somewhat harder (and hotter) than the game that I played with the Pinyan in the mountains. I think my team wins, but it's hard to be sure and although I score 3 goals, I think that's about the entire extent of my contribution.

"How the hell do I get round that?"

I am absolutely roasting by the time we finish, but somehow manage to resist the temptation to jump into the lagoon with the piranhas.

That night we go out in the canoes armed with our torches to see if we can spot any caimans... with 500 hectares of lagoon to hide in though, it's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, and all we keep seeing is the same poor Nightjar that must be sick of the sight of us (oh, and the bats that keep skimming the water looking for fish). And mosquitoes.... plenty of mosquitoes....although luckily for me they prefer the taste of C to the taste of me (well, if you had the choice of marble coloured, beautifully soft and smooth skin or hairy, sweaty and slightly yellow skin...what would you choose?)

Wednesday 21st March

We take the short walk to an indigenous community. I suppose in theory this is a chance for us to see how they live, but in practice it amounts to a trip to a hut to be offered the chance to buy some tat (bracelets, spears, daggers, blowpipes...) and a quick stop in another hut to sample some of the local liquour "chicha" and to learn how to do a dance. On the way back to the lodge, I manage to slip off a rotten tree across some scuzzy water and get a wellington boot full of crud. Nice. At least I manage to avoid the cappuccino spider that has its enormous web strung off on the other side of the same rotting tree. It's not much to look at, but apparently it's the most dangerous spider in the jungle.

the jungle canopy

On all of these expeditions we are accompanied by Carlos, an English speaking guide and by "Toro" (real name: Franklin), our indigenous guide. Toro is great. He's a bit of an action hero and always travels at the front with his machete to watch out for snakes and to point out any interesting things he finds along the way (poisonous frogs, millipedes, termite nests, lizards and the like). It is Toro who demonstrates how to shimmy up a tarzan vine and who jumps head first into the stagnant water when the machete falls in. Carlos is a different kettle of fish and is rapidly making me appreciate all over again quite how good Ivan was. Carlos is a bit lazy and not very helpful. He's not disastrous though, and maybe we've been a bit spoilt.. thankfully the jungle is interesting enough for it not to really matter. On our return to the lodge, we are supposed to be blowpiping, but after a couple of hours resting, Carlos discovers that the 3m long pipe is blocked. He spends a fruitless (and unhurried) half an hour trying to unblock it before deciding that we should go fishing instead. Nice to know that he spent the time after lunch fruitfully... asleep in a hammock.

Piranha fishing proves to be a relaxing but mildly frustrating exercise. We sit in the canoe in the middle of a lake in the lagoon and cast a line over the side using fresh meat as bait. Time and time again, the bait is taken but the hook is ignored.... it's actually quite interesting holding the line quite close to the surface and watching the piranha striking the bait and pushing it from side to side. Of course, the only person to actually catch anything is Carlos.... who catches three. C manages to get one out of the water, but it drops back in before she can get it into the boat. It's a lovely spot to watch the sun coming down though and observing the toucans, the parrots and the other birds.

Back at base, the blowpipe has been unblocked and we have a go at hitting the lemon in the centre of the target. The blowpipe is about 3m, and you imagine it would take quite a bit of puff to get a dart all the way down the pipe and out with any force... actually, it's surprisingly easy.

a huff and a puff....

Guess who wins our little competition?

a pair of lemons

Tea includes a piranha... but having seen what they eat, I don't really find it very appetising. Tonight also sees my first defeat in Cuarenta since the night we learned to play. C. was my partner in a match against Fernando and Carlos, and things were looking pretty good until C. misdealt the cards. In cuaranta this is an instant 10 point fine, and it's enough to swing the pendulum back the other way and before long we are beaten. It's a sad moment indeed.... but I don't bare grudges and I barely mention it now....

Thursday 22nd March

We have an early start to leave Yuturi to head 5 hours back upstream to the sister lodge, Yarina. I think the main reason for the transfer is because it means we only have a further one hour hop up the Napo to get back to Coca on Friday to meet our flights back to Quito, but another reason is that although Yuturi is unrivalled for birdwatching, Yarina is better placed for seeing other animals. On the way back up the Napo, we pause a few hours upstream at a place called "Monkey Island" - so named because it is home to a colony of Woolly monkeys. We trek half an hour into the jungle and catch a glimpse of a couple of monkeys, but just when I think that's going to be all, we get a great view of a family swinging about in the trees a few meters away from the boat. They look a little like small gorillas, and this is my first glimpse of monkeys in the wild. It's impossible not to be mesmerised by them and the way that they use their tails as a fifth limb.

Another couple of hours in the canoe and we take another small inlet off the Napo and soon arrive at Yarina. It is immediately apparent that this is a very different kettle of fish to Yuturi - there is hot water for one thing, and the beds are cleaner and more comfortable. It is also considerably busier and is packed with Americans. They generally seem quite nice, and it's great to be able to have a bit of comfort, but it puts the solitude of Yuturi into sharp context. It also seems to be an awful lot hotter here for some reason. The jungle around here is in some ways a lot tamer in the sense that there are more walkways and lookouts and things that have been built by the lodge. It's not quite a jungle theme park, but it's definitely a lot more domesticated than Yuturi. Mind you, the animals don't seem to care, and over the next 24 hours we see some more woolly monkeys, some squirrel monkeys, some pygmy marmosets, an aguti, a tortoise, a couple of big hairy tarantulas as well as lots and lots of birds. There is also a small area with some cages where animals that have been rescued are housed before they are released. Here we are able to see a spider monkey (that rather touchingly reaches out his tail to wrap around my leg as a sort of hello - it's hard to look at a monkey close up and not to see that we are relatively closely related... although some people are more closely related than others.... and this chap seems to take a shine to C.) We also see three adorable ocelots... sadly we learn that they are pretty much permanent residents here now because they had been released in the past but kept coming back. They are a beautiful combination of a leopard and a domestic cat, and even when one of them playfully reaches out through its cage and bats C's camera with its paw, I think she would happily take one home....

At dinner, C. is able to make public use of the indigenous dance that we learnt yesterday when she is pulled up by Toro to dance in front of everyone else as part of a demonstration. She professes to be embarrassed but is clearly as pleased as punch at the chance to shake her stuff on the dancefloor. Luckily, my undoubted prowess is not required in the demonstration.... Later that night we go out in the canoes looking for more caiman, and this time we have more luck, seeing several - their eyes glowing back red as we shine the torches out from the canoes. We get so close to one that Toro is able to shoot out a hand and grab it out of the water with a firm grip behind it's neck. This enables us to get a closer look at this 1m long alligator and even to touch it's very smooth armoured belly..... and then Carlos decides that he wants to hold it and to show it to some of the other tourists in the other boats. Toro seems unsure but hands the poor thing over. Carlos promptly drops the caiman into the canoe, where it not surprisingly starts snapping around C's ankles before it is picked up again. I'm not sure who is more relieved when the poor thing is popped back into the water - the caiman or C.

Friday 23rd March

Before we head back to Coca and our flight back to Quito, we just have time for one more expedition to a little fenced off lagoon with a short trail.... we are told that there are anaconda here, but unluckily (?) we don't encounter any, having to make do with more birds and monkeys. The jungle is starting to get under my skin: it's very different to the mountains, but it has a charm all of its own, and there is something very soothing about gently paddling down a small river surrounded by dense foliage, exotic birds and the distant sound of howler monkeys. Carlos also appears to be coming into his own here now and is clearly fascinated and animated by the monkeys in a way that he wasn't by the birds at Yuturi.

Carlos & Toro

After lunch we pack up and head back into Coca, just 45 minutes upstream. It looks as though we are going to have to wait a few hours for our flight, but the airline bumps us onto the first plane and about 35 minutes after we have disembarked from the canoe and said goodbye to Carlos and Toro, we are stepping off the plane in Quito -- and immediately I can feel that we are back at altitude as find myself gasping for air. We drop our bags at the hostel and then spend the next couple of hours wandering around "Gringoland", a mixture of restaurants, shops, internet cafes and hostels that is full (as you might imagine) with gringos. We manage to find a really great t-shirt shop and pick up a couple of souvenirs - t-shirts for ourselves, but also a nice hand-printed Ecuador football t-shirt for Lord Bargain (Ecuadorians are quite small people, so it's actually really quite hard to find a t-shirt big enough for a man who is the best part of 2m tall).

We have an early-ish tea at the "Magic Bean" (where a traditional band is playing just outside the window, and as they inevitably strike up a rendition of "El Condor Pasa", I am incredibly amused to hear a lady seated at a table of extremely pretentious Canadians nearby listen for a moment and then remark in deadly earnest to her friends "I wonder if Simon and Garfunkel were influenced by South American music at all". Good grief. What makes you say that? The song they did called "El Condor Pasa"?

Back to the hostel and the awful packing for the long day of travelling tomorrow.

Saturday 24th March

Up at the crack of dawn to get to the airport for our flight to Miami, our pointless trip through customs and immigration in the USA and then on to Heathrow. We leave Quito at around 8am on Saturday morning and land in London at a little after 06:30 on Sunday morning. A couple of hours later and we are finally back at home, where all I can do is drag myself upstairs to bed for a couple of hours of sleep.

What a brilliant, brilliant holiday.




If you like what you've seen here and you're thinking about a trip to Ecuador yourself, allow me to point you in the direction of a couple of very helpful gentlemen:

Equatorial Travel --- this is a small fair trade shop/ travel agency based in Ashbourne in Derbyshire and operated by a nice man called JP. It was JP who organised our trip to the Sahara in 2001, and it was because that was such a brilliant holiday that we considered going on this trip in the first place.

All About Eq --- this is the travel company that our guide Ivan helps to run. If you are not based in the UK but you are thinking about taking a trip to this beautiful country.... I strongly advise you to check these guys out. As with JP, sustainable tourism is the name of the game here, but this is a great way to get off the beaten track and to get away from those hordes of gringos! If you are based in the UK, then you should be talking to JP!

Okay. I'll try and talk about something else from now on.....

Labels: ,